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Cobain's Chucks

Posted by Joshua Glenn  March 19, 2008 07:26 AM

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This year, Converse will mark its 100th anniversary by producing several series of limited-edition athletic shoes, including one series -- sneaker freaks giddily reported earlier this week -- inspired by Kurt Cobain. Most of the models, which will be available in May and priced at $50 - $65, will feature the Nirvana frontman's signature on the heel; a pair of white Chuck Taylor hightops, however, will be covered with scribblings and song lyrics copied (with the permission of Courtney Love, Cobain's widow) from his journals.


I don't approve of this ghoulish marketing tribute. But Cobain certainly did plenty to popularize Chucks in the 1990s: He sported his when Nirvana appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, and on "Saturday Night Live." Besides, this apotheosis of Cobain's footwear gives me the opportunity to clear up a 17-year-old literary mystery. Namely, the secret meaning of a particular verse from "Come As You Are," the second-most popular song (after "Smells Like Teen Spirit") from Nirvana's 1991 album, "Nevermind."


"Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach/As I want you to be/As a trend, as a friend, as an old memoria" -- that's the verse that no one can explain. One biographer* writes of "Come As You Are" that the song "exemplified Cobain's skill at instilling meaning into dense, noisy rock," yet he neglects to explicate that meaning for us. Another biographer** notes that, as a singer and songwriter, Cobain excelled at "defying explanation though communicating in an emotional tone." This admixture of meaningfulness and ambiguity has spurred Nirvana fans and rock critics to theorize that "Come As You Are" is about this, that, and the other thing.*** For his part, Cobain, who wrote the song's lyrics in a hurry while tripping on Quaaludes and cough syrup, claimed in a 1992 interview that "I really don't know what the song is about. I guess it's about expectations of people."

* Christopher Sandford
** Charles Cross
*** In "Nevermind: Nirvana," Cross and Jim Berkenstadt claim, of "Come As You Are," that "Cobain seemed to imply that he was no longer going to be judgmental." They suggest that the song's narrator is "resigned to accepting people as they are -- whether or not they meet his expectations." Meanwhile, Chuck Crisafulli, author of "Nirvana: The Story Behind Every Song," reads "Come As You Are" as an Argonaut Folly (my term) -- that is to say, as an open invitation to misfits everywhere to form an intentional community. Michael Azerrad seems particularly enamored of the theory that Cobain was inviting his fellow high-school freaks and geeks to take a stand against the jocks; Azerrad went so far as to title his 1993 Nirvana bio "Come As You Are."


True, most of the song does seem to be about people -- all of whom, friends and enemies alike, the misanthropic and shy Cobain had a tough time dealing with. But the verse in question can't be about people... because people can't be doused in mud, soaked in bleach, or "a trend."

Sneakers, though -- particularly Chuck Taylors, whose durable canvas-and-rubber construction is what makes them so cool -- can be all three.


PS: If you're going to buy a pair, make sure you buy the Chucks, not the One Stars. Because Cobain was wearing One Stars when he shot himself, that's why!

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6 comments so far...
  1. Those replica suicide shoes are so classy. Perhaps the shoebox could be shaped like a little greenhouse....

    Mud = Mudhoney, friends/rival band that was generally viewed as "keeping it real" real"
    Bleach = Nirvana's first album
    as a trend, as a friend, as I want you to be = He's reaching out to the fans that were there from the beginning before their success (which was only starting to snowball when he wrote this song), coming as they are, while acknowledging that they were not breaking any new ground when they picked up those fans

    Posted by Alex V. Cook March 19, 08 11:45 AM
  1. Excellent. I welcome reader exegesis like this.

    I've read theories that the word "bleach," in this song, refers to Nirvana's previous record. (Or to Nirvana fans who'd heard of them -- listened to "Bleach" -- before "Nevermind" was released.) However! I believe that both the previous album's title and the "bleach" in this song are themselves references... to actual bleach. Used by Cobain and his teen punk friends to distress and decorate their thrift-store clothes. In the process of doing which, they sometimes soaked their Chucks.

    Posted by Josh Glenn March 19, 08 03:00 PM
  1. Who gets royalties from these products?

    Posted by jhm March 20, 08 11:00 AM
  1. The shoes Kurt is wearing in the last photo on this page aren't Chucks - they're PF Flyers. You can tell by looking at the ridges on the end of the toe cap, Flyers have them (and so do the ones in the picture) and Chucks don't. The other visible shoes are Chucks though. You can also just barely make out the green in the Flyers logo under Kurts jeans hem line (is that right hem line?)

    Posted by Randy Quinn March 21, 08 08:11 AM
  1. JHM -- Cobain's estate (Courtney Love) struck the deal with Converse.

    Randy -- terrific catch, thanks.

    Posted by Josh Glenn March 24, 08 11:21 AM
  1. I LOVE CHUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! TO THE FULLEST!

    Posted by MARIA May 21, 09 03:03 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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